Midway into Karthik Subburaj’s fantastic Iraivi (Goddess, 2015), there comes a familiar slow motion shot, which is usually a signal for the (male) audience to start whistling because the majestic man on-screen is going to unload his wrath that in turn will diffuse an adrenaline rush.
But, in this vital slow motion shot there was an eerie calmness in the theatre.
Yes, somewhere deep in my sub-conscious, the male ego justified the bloodbath, although our emotions remain bewildered.
It’s what director Karthik Subburaj does: he takes the familiar elements, shots and genres of Tamil/Indian cinema, deconstructs and presents them in a fresher perspective that withhold cornucopia of emotions.
Karthik belongs to the generation of Tamil film-makers (like Vetrimaran, Mysskin), whose films can’t be contained in genres or labelled entertaining,’ ‘daring,’ ‘artful.’
Also, those film-makers don’t tell stories for a preordained demographic of viewers.
They are just subtly insinuating for the possession of an important factor we know, but often forget: humanity.
Iraivi opens on a rainy day.
Three emotionally constrained women in an enclosed space, while enjoying the rain, talk about their dreams, hopes and failures.
They, the life-givers, want to circumvent the preordained paths and attain an elated state as much as one likes to get drenched in rain.
As author Neil Gaiman’s quote goes “Some people walk in the rain; others just get wet,” these women think more about getting wet than feeling the rain.
The reluctance arises by the shackles placed by masculinity.
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After the introduction of titular goddesses, the narrative moves on to present three male figures, inebriated and involving in petty fights: a fallen, alcoholic director Arul (Sj Suryah), his younger brother Jegan (Bobby Simha), a college student, eager to make easy money and Michael (Vijay Sethupathi), who enjoys close acquaintance with the brothers.
The other important male figure is Arul & Jegan’s father (Radha Ravi).
These angry, ignorant men have women in their lives, but their majestic ego sometimes masks the effort to show love.
In the case of Arul’s father, it is already too late because his wife is in a coma.
We learn how Arul’s father never cared about his wife, while she was fulfilling family needs.
We are intimated earlier that this trait would plague the lives of other men too.
The men are destined to buckle under the weight of strong emotions, while their women are destined to endure this cyclical occurrence.
As I previously mentioned, Karthik incorporates components which may fit into the ‘commercial’ label and then comments on the futility of these things.
Take the usual drinking scene (aka ‘sarukku’ scene), where in an intoxicated state, a character actually blasts at men for poorly treating women whereas such scenes in Tamil cinema would exactly do the opposite.
Or the unwanted ‘love’ song to woo the hardened women. She slaps the guy at the end of song, again indicating at the fruitlessness of these cinematic approaches.
In other moments, Karthik not only twists these regular elements, he goes deep to contemplate on the repercussions.
Arul’s drunken behavior in the pub is taken beyond its comic necessity to showcase how deeply it affects his wife Yazhini’s emotional state.
To put it simply, director/writer Karthik employs little cinematic contrivances to dig into the characters and their decisions.
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Nevertheless, the opposite happens too, which may not have been Karthik’s intention.
Characters’ actions at times do seem contrived. The narrative feels slightly overcooked.
I felt the same with the third, elongated act in Karthik’s previous film Jigarthanda.
But, the director is able to conjure up enough emotionally overwhelming moments alongside those contrivances that our interest in the tale doesn’t deteriorate.
As usual, Karthik gives us two different kinds of tales in the two halves of the film.
The transition and tonal changes in Pizza and Jigarthanda were a bit erratic, but smoother in Iraivi.
With the subsequent film, the promising director would definitely smooth out the other rough edges in his narrative.
I am reluctant to label Iraivi a feminist film, but it does deliver potshots at male ego or masculinity.
Karthik hasn’t bothered about going for ‘good’, ‘bad’ characters in both genders.
The ‘bad’ is in the male character’s perspective and in their actions.
The ‘good’ is in women’s endurance and reactions.
Even the bad guys’ wife resolves burning issues. So, it’s clear the filmmaker takes sides.
The male character stays in ‘grey’ territory only when they are at their best.
The male ego is abnormally large, on & off-screen that there’s no it is not wrong in taking sides.
While most Tamil filmmakers who wanted to make so-called ‘women-centric’ features, spewed the message out loud, Iraivi nudges home the point with elegant visuals. The impact, in turn, is stronger.
Still, the slight artificiality in the male character’s dark emotional rush makes me wonder why ‘they’ are being portrayed as representing their entire gender.
Nevertheless, I liked one nuanced observation of the male thinking.
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It happens when Michael after marriage (on a rainy night) comes to Malar Vizhi’s (a perfectly written character) house.
He has had a fling with her and now comes across as just another guy knocking at her door late night.
Karthik wonderfully handles the words, spoken & unspoken, in that scene.
Through Michael’s character, Karthik observes how the male sees his sexual desire as a casual thing, while relates the female’s sexual desire with a detestable craving.
We don’t often discuss about symmetry, symbolism, metaphor, film-form, framing, etc when talking about the so-called ‘mainstream’ cinema.
But Karthik’s imagery has definitely inspired me to watch it once again to learn more about his visual treatment.
As performers, Vijay Sethupathi and Anjali (as expected) stay higher on the pedestal.
But Sj Suryah as Arul is a revelation.
His over-the-top performance style is well-channeled. Gradually, his character attains an unbelievable profundity.
Karthik’s magnificent film slashes at male ego and laments for female sacrifices and endurance. Certainly one of the best Tamil cinema of the year!
By Arun Kumar
An ardent cinephile, who truly believes in the transformative power and shared-dream experience of cinema. He blogs at ‘Passion for Movies.’